Asterisks and brackets and pound signs, oh my!
All that punctuation, but why?
It's all Markdown. I dare you to give it a try.
Fine, but at the end of this post there'd better be some pie.

Okay, but really…

I admire John Gruber to no end. Like me, he’s a self-professed lover of Apple, so much so that he’s built an entire career off writing about the ups and downs, the hits and misses, and the current and future prospects of the company. His website/blog, Daring Fireball, is among the most popular Apple related sites out there, consistently garnering an estimated four million page views a month. His well-sourced articles, unabashed love of his interests, and skewering criticism of both Apple and other news-worthy topics are what keeps me coming back to his writing.

In his time on Daring Fireball, he also recognized the need for written language to be as readable as possible. Text written in HTML or a rich text format has so much junk attached to it. Who wants to deal with computer language? Desiring of a better way to write on a computer, he developed one of my favorite things in the world, Markdown. In his words:

Markdown is a text-to-HTML conversion tool for web writers. Markdown allows you to write using an easy-to-read, easy-to-write plain text format, then convert it to structurally valid XHTML (or HTML).

To put it another way, it allows you to do what you do best—writing like a keyboard wizard—and your computer to do what it does best—um, compute things. You write in plain text and your Markdown-enabled app or service turns your text into a language that the web will understand.

There’s no rich text, Word document nonsense to muddle through or WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) editors to impede your progress. There’s no formatting buttons to click or menus to mess with. Instead of slowing your mind down, it’s pure, unadulterated writing goodness.

Working with plain text also ensures that your work is future proofed. Yes, rich text may allow you to see how your text will be italicized or bolded, but a Word, Pages, or Google Docs document is going to come packaged with heaps of unintelligible cruft stuffed into its file.

What the heck is all that?
What the heck is all that?

Plain text avoids that messiness entirely. When you save a plain text document, there’s not mountain of files filled with computer mumbo-jumbo; it’s just a file with some text in it. In other words, with plain text, what you see really is what you get. And it will always be what you get. Your computer will be able to open a plain text file using any word processing program now and 100 years from now. A computer made 25 years from now probably won’t be able to do anything with that Word document you’ve got open on your desktop.

Now, I hear you. Why learn a brand new thing when you’re already used to something else? “Sean,” you say, “what the heck is with all these asterisks, hash marks, and curly brackets you want me to stuff into my text? It’s all so messy!” I get it. Markdown is a new beast that I’m trying to throw at your face. Much like if I were to throw a cat at your face, trying to use a whole new syntax in your writing may leave you a bit scratched and resentful.

Okay, comparing a cat being thrown at your face to learning something new probably isn’t the best way to persuade you, but I think you get my meaning. And hey, scratches heal quick.

Writing in Markdown has changed the way I work. It’s helped bring extra joy into my words. I’m sure it’ll do the same thing for you. Here’s the real secret—it’s not actually that hard to get into it. Here’s a quick example of some bits of the syntax:

*text example* = italicized text
**text example** = bold text
#text example = Heading 1 (and so on when additional hashes are added)
(text example)[link text] = link
- text example = • unordered list
1 text example = 1. ordered list

Imagine never having to take your hands off your keyboard. The endless cycle of typing -> highlighting text -> mousing up to the toolbar -> clicking the italicize icon -> and repeat can finally be over. Need to make something italic? Toss up some asterisks around your words and keep going. Piece of speedy cake.

For the future of your text and, why not, the future of humanity, consider spending some time getting to know and love Markdown. There’s a small learning curve at the beginning, but I feel confident you’ll see productivity gains with this easy format. To help you along the path, here are a few beautiful apps that will get you writing Markdown in no time:

  • Ulysses - my preferred editor and what I use to write all these posts
  • iA Writer - the stellar app that got me started with Markdown writing
  • 1Writer - I’ve not used this one, but it’s highly regarded
  • Bear - Markdown writing in a notes atmosphere? Awesome.

Happy writing, cats! (And here’s your pie).

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